Laura D. Barefield

title.none: Barber, The Holy Grail (Laura D. Barefield)

identifier.other: baj9928.0509.021 05.09.21

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Laura D. Barefield, University of Massachusetts-Lowell,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Barber, Richard. The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. Pp. xv, 464. $28.00 0-674-01390-5. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.09.21

Barber, Richard. The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. Pp. xv, 464. $28.00 0-674-01390-5. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Laura D. Barefield
University of Massachusetts-Lowell

In The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, Richard Barber pursues his own exhaustive quest for the grail as it has been historically conceived. This work explains the difficulties of such a search, charting the realities of medieval manuscript culture. Despite such difficult textual sources, Barber describes his project as a study of mentalites, explaining "we still have to understand the mindset and culture which produced them" (3). Visual images also play a role in this quest, as Barber charts the "convergence of literary imagination and religious ideals that made possible stories about the Grail," (3) an object central to the mysteries of the Mass and crucifixion that was nonetheless completely unorthodox. Unlike Percival, this work asks many questions about the grail from the beginning: "how can medieval romances apparently invade the province of medieval religion, and how can secular authors write about the highest mysteries of the Church? Why, when the medieval Church never officially recognized the Grail stories, did the Grail become a powerful religious icon, but only to non-clerics? How did the Grail acquire its aura of perfection?" (4).

The nearly four hundred pages of text in this book are divided into three sections. In the first, six chapters give an overview of the primary grail stories from 1190-1240, written by Chretien de Troyes, Robert de Boron, and Wolfram von Eschenbach, as well as the continuations of Chretien, Perlesvaus, and the "Lancelot-Grail," that is, the "Vulgate Cycle" or "Prose Lancelot." These texts are summarized and indeed quoted at great length, with little analysis here. The author explains this strategy in an epilogue to part one, stating that these texts are the "essential documentation for our understanding of how the Grail was envisaged by the authors who created it" and that he has tried to be as "impartial as possible, without laying emphasis on points which would favor one interpretation over another" (86).

The second section, Chapters Seven through Fourteen, analyzes by topic the texts presented in the first section. Chapter Seven: The Grail, ranges from possible etymologies for the terms used to refer to the grail, to the grail as a chalice and a source of healing. Chapter Eight: The Setting of the Grail goes over adventures caused by the grail, the crucial grail questions, and their spiritual consequences. Chapter Nine: Obscure Histories, Dubious Relics, Charts the legends of Joseph of Arimathea and Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced the side of the crucified Christ with his spear. This chapter identifies the grail and the spear as relics of the crucifixion and associates them with an emerging cult of the Holy Blood (blood drawn from Christ's body as he died). Chapter Ten: The Eucharist and the Grail illustrates how the church's reconception of the Mass asserted the power of the Eucharist. Since the grail and its ability to heal and nourish become central to chivalric romances, "it is possible to read the Grail as a kind of call to arms to the chivalry of Europe against the forces threatening the church" (144). Chapter Eleven: The Holy Grail and Chapter Twelve: The Secrets of the Grail focus upon the knights and their adventures, and upon the conception of an authoritative history or source for the grail, respectively. Singling out Wolfram von Eschenbach, Chapter Fourteen argues that Chretien is concerned with the "fortunes of Perceval as an individual"and that Robert de Boron and the "Lancelot-Grail" create a world where "the ethos of the Grail and that of the knights who seek it are in opposition" (186). Chapters Fifteen and Sixteen, concluding this section, discuss later medieval tradition: in the first, later German romances by Heinrich von dem Turlin, Ulrich Fietrer, and Albrecht, and in the second, the Prose Tristan and Malory's Morte d'Arthur.

The final section relates the fortunes of Arthurian literature and the Grail theme from the advent of printing through the current day. Beginning with scholarly work in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this section examines literary and high cultural manifestations of the grail and ends with a discussion of what we might call counter-cultural perceptions of the grail in the occult, rumors of secret societies, and the New Age movement. In addition to literary texts, illustrations are woven throughout the book, and there are eight pages of color plates. Included in appendices are a chronological chart of the medieval grail romances, a list of visual images of the grail, a glossary of theological terms, and a chart listing the use of the term "grail" in contemporary newspapers.

As the summary above illustrates, the scope of this book is encyclopedic, seeking to record a complete history of conceptions of the Holy Grail. This study marshals impressive collections of evidence, but is less successful in helping the reader see analytical connections in this wealth of information. Particularly helpful to the scholarly reader would be more discussion of critical contexts for literary interpretation or of historiographic debates raised by other researchers. What discussion there is of secondary material is relegated to the notes at the back of the book. While offered by Harvard University Press in the United States, this book has also been published by Penguin in the United Kingdom, so one can perhaps presume an intended audience of both popular and scholarly readers.

Many chapters, in fact, begin with imaginative renderings of medieval authors or readers encountering the texts under discussion, a strategy seemingly aimed at getting the contemporary reader to imagine what the sources from so long ago can tell us. And that is perhaps Barber's goal, for in his conclusion, he characterizes the grail as a "mystery, a historical and literary puzzle" (364) that has no one true meaning since "the force that shaped it is not history, but imagination" (365).